If the title sounds familiar, that's because it is if you read the Detroit Free Press. On Wednesday, the Freep listed their five favorite role players in Detroit sports history in honor of Kirk Maltby's retirement. It's a strong list, featuring John Salley, Tom Brookens, Joey Kocur, Gates Brown and Cory Schlesinger.
While I can't deny what these names stand for in Detroit sports history, I can't say they're all my favorite role players because I was either, a) not alive, or b) too young to truly appreciate all of them. Therefore, I've come up with my own list of favorite players who provided a substantive yet unrecognized contribution to the Detroit sports teams I've loved over the last 25 years.
5. Cory Schlesinger - FB, Lions
I'm putting him five because the Free Press already used him and because he wasn't all that unrecognized. In fact, the Freep points out that Schles was a fan favorite because of his hard nosed, blue collared playing style. When I hear the name Cory Schlesinger I think of his gaudy pads, nose strip and blood dripping down his face from demoralizing defenders with no remorse.
Schles played all 12 seasons of his career for the Lions and a lot of the running back success from '97-on was thanks in part to him. As is usually the case, though, all of the glory goes to the running back and not to the blocking.
Schlesinger's career ended when he was cut by the Dolphins at the end of camp in 2007. Later that year, I bought myself a $10 "Schlesinger 30" jersey off Ebay, which I still wear on most Sundays during football season.
4. Stephen Boyd - LB, Lions
After being drafted in the 5th round out of Boston College, Stephen Boyd had to earn his way into the Lions starting linebacker corps. Finally, after two years on special teams and some time starting at right linebacker, Boyd won over the Mike position. He, then, spent the next four years putting the hurt on opposing players. Like Schlesinger, the image of Boyd that's ingrained in my head is of him wearing the neck guard shoulder pads with blood dripping down from the bridge of his nose. Epitome of bad ass.
In four full years as a starting linebacker, Boyd was selected to two Pro Bowls. Compare that to Chris Spielman's four Pro Bowls in his nine full years as a starting linebacker. Although Boyd did not have Spielman's talent, he had a similar impact on the Lions defense, but wasn't anywhere close to having the same backing from fans.
3. Mickey Tettleton - C/OF/1B, Tigers
Mickey Tettleton only played four seasons in Detroit, and he was well liked, but he was always in the shadows of Cecil Fielder, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, and Kirk Gibson. That's not to say he didn't put up numbers that should have earned him some share of spot light, though.
Ironically, his batting stance that led to a forgettable .249 batting average during his time in Detroit is what he is probably best known for. The switchy would stand straight up, with a mean chaw in his mouth, and rest the bat flat over his shoulder with his back elbow cocked. It's a stance I'd emulate thousands of times in my backyard playing whiffle ball with my brothers. The fact he translated that awkwardness into 102 home runs and an .867 OPS in four years is pretty remarkable. His time with the Tigers was so short-lived, it's easy to forget that he was actually a huge part of the better Tigers teams in the 90s.
2. Terry Mills - F, Pistons
Terry Mills was probably the 1990s version of modern day Charlie Villanueva -- on the pudgier side, not good on defense and a forward that liked to chuck up a lot of threes. Mills was different, though, in that he was far less popular, made a lot more of those threes (39% in his time with Detroit) and was a marginally better rebounder.
Georga Blaha often chose Mills for Taco Bell Unsung Player Of The Game in the mid-90s, so this list was made for him. Playing with the likes of Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, Allan Houston, Otis Thorpe and young star Grant Hill never helped his notoriety in Detroit, but, if you look at the stats, Mills was always a steady contributor. In fact, he was the biggest on those putrid Pistons' teams in '93-94 and '94-95. His overall numbers dipped when the Pistons got better as a team, but he probably had his best season in '96-97 when the Pistons won 54 games. That season he shot an astronomical 412 threes, but made 42% of them and had a TS% of 59%. When you're playing behind All-Stars Grant Hill, Joe Dumars, and Otis Thorpe ('92), it's easy to go mostly unnoticed. (Of course, the only YouTube highlight of Mills is of him getting posterized by the Piston killer, Robert Horry *cringe*).
1. Kris Draper - C, Red Wings
Draper is the only active player on the list, but I have to include him for no other reason than he is a lot like Kirk Maltby -- the inspiration for this post. Drapes is another Canadian grind liner who has experienced a sneaky lengthy and successful career with the Red Wings. He might be the more revered of the two, but I honestly don't think that's the case if Claude Lemieux doesn't put his face into the boards in the '96 playoffs. That incident ignited an already heated rivalry and it was, unfortunately, mostly because Draper wound up in a hospital with his jaw wired shut. His play, I still feel like, is grossly undervalued by many fans when attributing credit for the Wings' success over the years. I asked three Wings fans, who I consider to be pretty big fans, and two didn't even know for sure if Draper is an assistant team captain! (He is).
Draper has been a part of four Stanley Cups, and has 19 points during those playoff series (Maltby had 18). As Ryan pointed out in his feature on Maltby, though, Draper doesn't light it up on the stat sheet; he does most of his work off the puck. One of Draper's comments describing a game during the '97 season, in his thick Canadian accent, sticks out to me as a fitting description of his own style of play: "...good, tough hockey." If Maltby's retirement opens our eyes to anything, it should be that Wings fans need to appreciate the play of a Kris Draper a little more.
Obviously, this is a pretty subjective list tailored to my years of fanhood, so let's read who your five favorite unsung heroes are in Detroit sports history.